Director: Jon Watts
Notable Cast: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau, Jamie Foxx, Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei, Benedict Wong, Rhys Ifans, Thomas Haden Church, JK Simmons
The final of four Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films in 2021 just happens to be one of the safest ones. In a year filled with giant question marks around new heroes like Shang-Chi and Eternals or the long-awaited, and still very mediocre, Black Widow, Spider-Man: No Way Home seemed like the one that audiences could devour with the most ease. It was a hero in his third solo film of the franchise, one with a deep history in pop culture, and audiences were craving a bit of comfort food in the wake of a new wave of pandemic after a long and tumultuous year.
Marvel understood the need and so did Sony, considering it was a cooperative effort between the two studios in the most obvious ways possible.
The box office numbers reflect this choice as audiences still repeatedly flock to theaters to see this third Spider-Man solo flick. It’s not shocking. That’s what No Way Home is built to be as a film. It’s pure crowd-pleasing popcorn material through and through, almost to a fault. Nonetheless, through its dynamic action and charming performances, it’s hard not to love Spider-Man: No Way Home to some degree even if its reliance on nostalgia overpowers so much of its run-time and material.
As expected, No Way Home does adhere to the current state of MCU and the previous Spider-Man films with relative ease. It helps that director Jon Watts returns to the fold, a Disney staple now that he’s been confirmed to direct the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot, and for those expecting quips galore, larger than life spectacle, and easy to follow series of character arcs, then that’s what No Way Home delivers. For those tired of the formula, even with its interesting angles and approaches to some returning characters, then No Way Home is not going to strike much merit. For those already 25+ films invested (not counting all previous Spider-Man iterations from Sony) then it’s liable to snag some big moments of joy from its audience.
With the previously mentioned collaboration in full swing between Disney’s Marvel arm and Sony with the now fully unveiled ‘multi-verse’ for the MCU, it allowed No Way Home to take advantage of all previous Spider-Man films and their material - which includes characters like the villains of previous films collaborating in a makeshift Sinister Six mode.
On one hand, this allows No Way Home to pick and choose the better aspects of previous films, shave out the problematic parts, and make jokes about the flaws or auteur choices made by previous filmmakers. It also makes the film heavily rely on an audience that understands, remembers, and (more importantly) cares about any of those characters. If you don’t fall into those categories, so much of No Way Home is going to fall utterly flat.
Certainly, this multiverse angle actively fixes some issues for characters like Electro, played by a non-blue Jamie Foxx, but it also hopes that people remember why Octavius or Osborn (played with the usual movie stealing layered performances from Molina and Dafoe respectively) are the way they are and why we should believe any of their character choices throughout the narrative. Of course, it still treats Lizard like the CGI turd he was in The Amazing Spider-Man. That’s just par for the course though.
Because there are so many characters, from the MCU and Sony worlds, No Way Home can struggle in giving any of them the proper treatment as layered characters. Sure, some of the heroes get some redeeming moments, but there is an active element to No Way Home that feels like it relies so heavily on nostalgia that it fails to truly have its own separate identity. It’s a Frankenstein’s Monster of stitched together franchises - with Doctor Strange popping up for shits and giggles to be a catalyst for everything - and when it draws so much attention to the seams (literally the world is being ripped apart by the seams in the third act) that it’s hard not to think about the industry contracts and schedules and other behind the scenes material instead of being lost in the artistic world.
Granted, as mentioned previously, No Way Home is relatively well executed. The writing and narrative may not leave a lot of room for nuance beyond “oh look, we replicated that meme in our own way, isn’t that charming?,” but the execution is relatively strong.
Director Watts has a knack for visual pops and he continues to embrace a relative sense of fun with the film, even if the latter half is very much in the vein of layering on plenty of Spider-Trauma onto Holland’s Peter Parker. The action is visually stunning, although the final action set piece does get muddled with its nighttime visage, and there are enough jokes to chuckle at to keep one’s attention even when the film starts to crumble into science and mystic gobblety gook. The performances are strong throughout, a blessing for so many characters that receive so little new depth - including a bafflingly flatlined use of Sandman, and MCU fans are obviously eager to dig through all of the Easter Eggs and future franchising setups.
If anything, the film ends on a relatively strong note that takes the MCU version of Spider-Man far away from its Iron Man Lite elements and back to the core character aspects that made the superhero such a fan favorite.
While Spider-Man: No Way Home was more of a mixed effort than the initial word of mouth and critical praise indicated, it does have its charm and action-packed fun to be the consumable safe product that the MCU needed after a year of larger swings (for them). It’s chock full of nostalgia and surprises for those invested, but it rarely leaves room for those who are a bit more skeptical of the Marvel brand.
Quite frankly, I’m more excited to see where the Spider-Man solo films go from here now that they’ve gotten this transition film out of the way to get our beloved hero back to his roots.